Are there consequences to China’s growing unpopularity in Southeast Asia?

As China grows, so does its ambition to regain its historic status as the hegemon of Asia. He uses economic coercion, territorial expansion, and rhetorical devices to enforce his will and deference to lesser powers in the region. Naturally, China’s warmongering has made it unpopular among national populations in the region, and Southeast Asia is no exception. Throughout Southeast Asia, the negative view of China is gaining momentum and intensity year after year in most countries. Despite this trend, many Southeast Asian countries still publicly refer to Beijing. This then begs the question: are there consequences to China’s growing unpopularity in Southeast Asia?

Like many countries around the world, those that make up Southeast Asia have seen an increase in the negative perception of China by its people. The ISEAS 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey Reporting is enlightening in this regard. The researchers found that when asked if their respective countries were forced to align themselves with one of the two great powers – China and the United States – who should they choose, a majority chose the United States- United (61%). Importantly, those who would choose China have fallen from 46.4% in 2020 to 38.5%, despite a year of its “mask diplomacy.” When asked whether they welcomed or worried about China’s growing influence in their respective countries, all were extremely worried. All but Singapore, Laos and Malaysia (albeit slightly) have become more worried over the past year. We have seen the usual suspects, Vietnam and the Philippines, rise, but China’s image has gradually become hostile in some countries with which it shares its closest ties, such as Cambodia.

Looking at Chinese behavior over the past two years, it’s not hard to see why its perception is increasingly negative. Dating back a long way but intensifying under President Xi Xinping, China has increasingly used its growing power to bully other states into a series of deferential relationships. Nowhere is this truer than in the South China Sea, where China has employed a gray area strategy that has gradually increased its strategic position and control of the area without escalating disagreement into conflict. For Example, in March this year, China sent 220 fishing vessels to the Philippine-claimed Pentecost Reef, daring the Philippines to force it out, thereby normalizing its presence there. China has used its air force for similar purposes, including in June 2021 when China shipped sixteen PLAAF aircraft to Malaysian claimed territory off its coasts (Luconia and James Shoals) without communication.

China’s aggressive rhetoric by its diplomats – known as “wolf warrior diplomacy” – has also contributed to its increasingly negative image. Pierre Martin, author of the book: The Chinese Civil Army: The Making of Wolf Warrior Diplomacy, describe as “shrilly and assertive behavior that ranges from storming out of an international meeting to shouting at foreign counterparts and even insulting foreign leaders”. For example, at the 2021 high-level U.S.-China talks in Alaska, Chinese diplomats praised the U.S. for its so-called human rights and claimed it was unable to speak out against abuses of the China. Yet most examples occur on more informal platforms like Twitter, where Chinese officials have hit back directly at CCP critics. The most glaring example came when a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Chao Lijian, accused the United States of being the origin of the coronavirus, then spreading it to Wuhan. This new form of Chinese diplomacy stands in stark contrast to the “peaceful rise” rhetoric that China has advocated for years.

Normally, the justification for dealing with China’s belligerence is the benefit of an unaffected trade and investment relationship. China’s massive economy and moves to invest its surplus in developing Southeast Asian economies are certainly alluring. Yet China conducts its trade and investment in such a way that it harms many members of the domestic population. Take Laos, for example, where China is its biggest investor, to pay $2 billion in more than twenty-one projects in 2020 alone. Nevertheless, Chinese companies to bring in the majority of workers come from China and pay Laotians lucky enough to find work a lower wage. Even Laotians who are not involved in the projects face displacement and environmental degradation. Worse still, Laos is transaction with massive debt from those projects, with experts estimating its obligation at $13.3 billion and nearly three-quarters of its gross domestic product (GDP).

Yet Southeast Asian countries often remain silent in favor of China or publicly side with it on larger security issues. Take the recently signed Australia-UK-US Nuclear Submarine Agreement (AUKUS) as an example. Although this is a deal meant to balance Chinese military influence in the region, the response from Southeast Asia has been either muted or downright disheartening. In total, the Philippines was the only Southeast Asian country to come expressed their strong support for the agreement and welcomed its balancing effect on China. Malaysia and Indonesia publicly declared their concerns about its consequences for great power competition and the nuclear arms race in the region. Meanwhile, Thailand remained silent, and Vietnam and Singapore were explicitly neutral while presumably supporting it implicitly. A similar reaction happened when the Quad launched its alliance.

Nevertheless, China faces notable consequences for its behavior in a range of problematic areas. Along with trade and investment, In 2018 the newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahatir suspended all China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects after China featured prominently as a boogeyman in the 2018 elections. Corruption directly linked China and BRI projects to the former Prime maligned minister Najib after journalists discovered that Najib accepted these projects at an inflated price in return for the Chinese reimbursing the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) – the Malaysian state fund which dried up due to corruption. Although subsequent prime ministers reinstated some of the projects, they reinstated them at a reduced price.

China has also brought countries closer to the United States, although this is not overt. Vietnam, for example, has exponentially increased its relationship with the United States since President Obama traveled in 2015 to protect itself against China. Following Obama’s openness to the country, America lifted its arms embargo, anchored several aircraft carriers in Vietnamese ports, made several high-level visits, increases its trade from $451 million in 1994 to $90 billion in 2020, and advanced the bilateral relationship towards a strategic partnership.

In the area of ​​security, we have seen the Philippines abandon its bandwagon to China after only four years. After Philippine President Benigno Aquino III deepened the historically deep security relationship between the Philippines and the United States, President-elect Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 quickly reversed that trend and turned to China. During his first official visit as president to Beijing, Duterte declared a “separation” from the United States that was “both military, not perhaps social, but economic as well. America lost. Fast forward four years later when Duterte given a speech in which he slammed China and its actions in the South China Sea. A more telling example came in February 2021 on tour at Clark Air Force Base Manila when Duterte admitted that “the exigency of the moment demands [the U.S.] presence” there. This endorsement of the Visiting Forces Agreement – ​​an agreement that allowed America to station troops on Philippine territory – was a significant reversal of its previous policy of suspending the agreement. Today, Philippine security is as tied to the United States as it was before Duterte, while severely discrediting the idea of ​​a bandwagon with China. This is well summed up by the provocative title of Derek Grossman of Rand Corporation article“China lost the Philippines despite Duterte’s best efforts.”

Apart from the Philippines, these changes were subtle and orchestrated so as not to attract the ire of China. While it can be incredibly frustrating for policymakers in Washington, the economic threat of China’s indiscretion is a reality for Southeast Asia. Australia was the first Example of this punitive strategy when faced with extreme Chinese tariffs after calling for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Because of this reality, the United States can and should do more to help the region economically to give Southeast Asian countries alternatives and cover against Chinese retaliation. It may also prove that it takes the region seriously on its own terms, with its own issues, and not just when it fits conveniently into its competition with China. Finally, he must prove that he is here to stay and that he will not disengage after the next election, leaving him vulnerable to Chinese retaliation. Until then, the United States can expect a muted response from Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, as China continues to overplay its hand, Southeast Asia, albeit quietly, will push back.

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